There’s no disappointment quite like sleeping for eight to ten hours only to roll out of bed feeling just as tired, if not more than you were the night before. It’s an easy pattern to brush off as part of life, but if you’re not waking up revitalized or feel like you’re always running on empty, something’s definitely up. Below, experts explain reasons why you wake up tired (and feel like you’re always tired), and how to stop the viscous cycle of sleepiness.
Reasons you wake up tired
There are a slew of reasons why you might wake up on the wrong side of the bed—and stay there all day. You have more control over some than others.
If you’ve never heard of it, sleep inertia is the technical term for typical morning grogginess. It’s why you may feel a little wobbly on your feet or disoriented after getting out of bed—your brain is essentially waking up.
“Studies have shown that blood flow in the brain is slower for up to 30 minutes after waking compared to before going to sleep,” explains Robin M. Tucker, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of food science and nutrition at Michigan State University who studies the intersection of nutrition and sleep. She adds that the sleepy sensation lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour for most people, but others can experience it for several hours.
“Sleep inertia typically lasts longer after nights of insufficient sleep, especially if those nights are consecutive,” Tucker says. “While it can be annoying not to be able to jump out of bed and be at your best, some scientists believe that sleep inertia helps you to get back to sleep quickly and prevents unwanted awakenings.” With that being said, waking up during deep stages of sleep is believed to cause more serious sleep inertia, she adds.
For obvious reasons, it can be kind of tricky to differentiate between the normal drag and general fatigue, but Peter Polos, M.D., Ph.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep and Sleep Number expert says sleep inertia usually clears as the day progresses, whereas more persistent exhaustion may linger throughout the day, often only relieved by more sleep or napping.
Blue light exposure
Whether you want to believe it or not, your screen time seriously impacts your sleep, especially the quality of it. Yet many of us engage in what Tucker calls “revenge bedtime procrastination,” or the decision to stay up after a busy day to partake in the leisure activities we’d otherwise miss out on (i.e. scrolling, watching TV) instead of sleep.
“Using computers, tablets, cell phones, and TVs too close to bedtime can inhibit melatonin release and delay sleep onset, so it’s best to shut them down an hour before bed to avoid extra exposure,” says Dr. Polos. In general, he adds that we sleep best in a dark, cool room (between 67 to 69 degrees), so if you’re falling asleep with the TV on, it could be stealing your restorative ZZZs.
Poor sleep hygiene
Having good sleep hygiene means maintaining a bedroom environment and daily routine that promote restful sleep. Making small tweaks to bedding or bedtimes can make a world of difference. “Make sure you sleep on a comfortable bed that supports you from head to toe,” says Dr. Polos. “It’s worth looking into a smart bed, like the Sleep Number 360, that lets you adjust the comfort and firmness on each side of the bed.” He adds that the 360 model has a circadian rhythm feature that helps you understand your own.
Pillows are just as important—Dr. Polos says to find one that fits your sleep style, whether you’re a side sleeper or need neck support.
Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol
Caffeine is a stimulant, and that afternoon pick-me-up could be affecting you more than you realize. “Some people metabolize caffeine more slowly than others,” explains Tucker. And although alcohol is a depressant, it can disrupt the REM stages of sleep, adds Dr. Polos, keeping you from entering the deep sleep needed for restoration. That’s why he recommends avoiding either substance up to four hours before bedtime.
Sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea commonly interfere with sleep and wakefulness. People with sleep apnea in particular are prone to feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep. “[It] causes the airway to close repeatedly throughout the night,” explains Tucker, which jolts you awake to breathe. “You might not remember these awakenings, but they are disruptive and can cause people to fail to feel refreshed after sleeping,” she adds. Major signs of sleep apnea are heavy snoring and daytime drowsiness, and a sleep test is required for diagnosis.
It really is true that some people are naturally night owls and others are morning birds. “These are usually genetically predetermined,” says Polos. “They can be modified to some degree but typically, one cannot be replaced by the other.”
Lack of exercise
You might think working out would make you more tired, but the opposite is true. In fact, exercise has been found to combat workplace fatigue, boost energy, and conversely, research shows it can help you sleep longer and more soundly at night, allowing you to wake up feeling refreshed.
Poor mental health
While a lack of sleep is sure to affect your headspace, mental health can wreak havoc on sleep, too. Research shows that around 40% of young depressed adults struggle with hypersomnia, or feelings of excessive tiredness. Anxiety and worry—especially PTSD—can also affect quality of sleep.
How do I stop waking up tired?
Aside from the habits already mentioned, there are a few other ways you can feel more alert, faster in the mornings.
Let the light in
“Exposure to light, especially sunlight, in the morning helps to wake us up,” says Tucker, adding that overall, more exposure to daylight also encourages earlier sleep onset. That’s because light and circadian rhythm are intrinsically linked, and so the exposure advances the natural sleep cycle, adds Polos. So, it may be time to ditch the blackout curtains or try a sunrise-mimicking alarm clock to get the light you need to stay on track.
Stop hitting snooze
Ever feel even more tired after sleeping the 10 minutes your snooze button allows? That’s because hitting snooze increases the likelihood that you’ll wake up during a deep stage of sleep, which worsens sleep inertia, explains Polos. So, it’s best to set your alarm for the amount of hours you need to get a good night’s rest, or stay awake during your snooze periods, using the alarms to help sleep inertia dissipate.
Dr. Polos says doing yoga or taking a brisk walk an hour before bed are known to support sleep. “Exercise is always a great decision and can help promote quality sleep as a key component of your overall health,” he adds.
Set a bedtime (and wake time) and stick to it
Yes, even on the weekends. “In working with people who are dissatisfied with the amount or quality of sleep they get, we find that maintaining a consistent bedtime and wake time is a simple but very powerful tool to getting more and better sleep,” says Tucker. While it may be a challenge at first, it will be worth it. “Sleep isn’t wasted time,” Tucker adds. “It’s vital to your health and should be prioritized.”
Prioritize your mental health by consulting your primary care physician about your concerns, finding a therapist, or simply taking more time for yourself to decompress after a long day.
Kayla Blanton is a freelance writer-editor who covers health, nutrition, and lifestyle topics for various publications including Prevention, Everyday Health, SELF, People, and more. She’s always open to conversations about fueling up with flavorful dishes, busting beauty standards, and finding new, gentle ways to care for our bodies. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ohio University with specializations in women, gender, and sexuality studies and public health, and is a born-and-raised midwesterner living in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and two spoiled kitties.